ONLINE CIVIC SPACE: ‘We shouldn’t expect tech giants to solve the problems that they have created’

 

Marek TuszynskiAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Marek Tuszynski, co-founder and creative director of Tactical Tech, a Berlin-based international civil society organisation that engages with citizens and civil society to explore the impacts of technology on society and individual autonomy. Founded in 2003, in a context where optimism about technology prevailed but focus was lacking on what specifically it could do for civil society, Tactical Tech uses its research findings to create practical solutions for citizens and civil society.

Some time ago it seemed that the online sphere could offer civil society a new space for debate and action – until it became apparent that online civic space was being restricted too. What kinds of restrictions are you currently seeing online, and what's changed in recent years?

Fifteen years ago, the digital space in a way belonged to the people who were experimenting with it. People were building that space using the available tools, there was a movement towards open source software, and activists were trying build an online space that would empower people to exercise democratic freedoms, and even build democracy from the ground up. But those experimental spaces became gentrified, appropriated, taken over and assimilated into other existing spaces. In that sense, digital space underwent processes very similar to all other spaces that offer alternatives and in which people are able to experiment freely. That space shrank massively, and free spaces were replaced by centralised technology and started to be run as business models.

For most people, including civil society, using the internet means resorting to commercial platforms and systems such as Google and Facebook. The biggest change has been the centralisation of what used to be a distributed system where anybody was able to run their own services. Now we rely on centralised, proprietary and controlled services. And those who initially weren’t very prevalent, like state or corporate entities, are now dominating. The difference is also in the physical aspect, because technology is becoming more and more accessible and way cheaper than it used to be, and a lot of operations that used to require much higher loads of technology have become affordable by a variety of state and non-state entities.

The internet became not just a corporate space, but also a space for politics and confrontation on a much larger scale than it was five or ten years ago. Revelations coming from whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and scandals such as those with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are making people much more aware of what this space has become. It is now clear that it is not all about liberation movements and leftist politics, and that there are many groups on the other end of the political spectrum that have become quite savvy in using and abusing technology.

In sum, changes are being driven by both economic and, increasingly, political factors. What makes them inescapable is that technology is everywhere, and it has proliferated so fast that it has become very hard to imagine going back to doing anything without it. It is also very hard, if not impossible, to compartmentalise your life and separate your professional and personal activities, or your political and everyday or mundane activities. From the point of view of technology, you always inhabit the same, single space.

Do people who use the internet for activism rather than, say, to share cat pictures, face different or specific threats online?

Yes, but I would not underestimate the cat pictures, as insignificant as they may seem to people who are using these tools for political or social work. It is the everyday user who defines the space that others use for activism. The way technologies are used by people who use them for entertainment ends up defining them for all of us.

That said, there are indeed people who are much more vulnerable, whose exposure or monitoring can restrict their freedoms and be dangerous for them – not only physically but also psychologically. These people are exposed to potential interceptions and surveillance to find out what are they doing and how, and also face a different kind of threat, in the form of online harassment, which may impact on their lives well beyond their political activities, as people tend to be bullied not only for what they do, but also for what or who they are.

There seems to be a very narrow understanding of what is political. In fact, regardless of whether you consider yourself political, very mundane activities and behaviours can be seen by others as political. So it is not just about what you directly produce in the form of text, speech, or interaction, but also about what can be inferred from these activities. Association with organisations, events, or places may become equally problematic. The same happens with the kind of tools you are using and the times you are using them, whether you are using encryption and why. All these elements that you may not be thinking of may end up defining you as a person who is trying to do something dangerous or politically controversial. And of course, many of the tools that activists use and need, like encryption, are also used by malicious actors, because technology is not intrinsically good or bad, but is defined by its users. You can potentially be targeted as a criminal just for using – for activism, for instance – the same technologies that criminals use.

Who are the ‘vulnerable minorities’ you talk about in your recent report on digital civic space, and why are they particularly vulnerable online?

Vulnerable minorities are precisely those groups that face greater risks online because of their gender, race or sexual orientation. Women generally are more vulnerable to online harassment, and politically active women even more so. Women journalists, for instance, are subject to more online abuse than male journalists when speaking about controversial issues or voicing opinions. They are targeted because of their gender. This is also the case for civil society organisations (CSOs) focused on women’s rights, which are being targeted both offline and online, including through distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, website hacks, leaks of personal information, fabricated news, direct threats and false reports against Facebook content leading to the suspension of their pages. Digital attacks sometimes translate into physical violence, when actors emboldened by the hate speech promoted on online platforms end up posing serious threats not only to people’s voices but also to their lives.

But online spaces can also be safe spaces for these groups. In many places the use of internet and online platforms creates spaces where people can exercise their freedoms of expression and protest. They can come out representing minorities, be it sexual or otherwise, in a way they would not be able to in the physical places where they live, because it would be too dangerous or practically impossible. They are able to exercise these freedoms in online spaces because these spaces are still separate from the places where they live. However, there is a limited understanding of the fact that this does not make these spaces neutral. Information can be leaked, shared, distorted and weaponised, and used to hurt you when you least expect it.

Still, for many minorities, and especially for sexual minorities, social media platforms are the sole place where they can exercise their freedoms, access information and actually be who they are, and say it aloud. At the same time, they technically may retain anonymity but their interests and associations will give away who they are, and this can be used against them. These outlets can create an avenue for people to become political, but that avenue can always be closed down in non-democratic contexts, where those in power can decide to shut down entire services or cut off the internet entirely.

Is this what you mean when you refer to social media as ‘a double-edged sword’? What does this mean for civil society, and how can we take advantage of the good side of social media?

Social media platforms are a very important tool for CSOs. Organisations depend on them to share information, communicate and engage with their supporters, organise events, measure impact and response based on platform analytics, and even raise funds. But the use of these platforms has also raised concerns regarding the harvesting of data, which is analysed and used by the corporations themselves, by third-party companies and by governments.

Over the years, government requests for data from and about social media users have increased, and so have arrests and criminalisation of organisations and activists based on their social media behaviour. So again, what happens online does not stay online – in fact, it sometimes has serious physical repercussions on the safety and well-being of activists and CSO staff. Digital attacks and restrictions affect individuals and their families, and may play a role in decisions on whether to continue to do their work, change tactics, or quit. Online restrictions can also cause a chilling effect on the civil society that is at the forefront of the promotion of human rights and liberties. For these organisations, digital space can be an important catalyst for wider civil political participation in physical spaces, so when it is attacked, restricted, or shrunk, it has repercussions for civic participation in general.

Is there some way that citizens and civil society can put pressure on giant tech companies to do the right thing?

When we talk about big social media actors we think of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp – three of which are in fact part of Facebook – and we don’t think of Google because it is not seen as social media, even though it is more pervasive, it is everywhere, and it is not even visible as such.

We shouldn’t expect these companies to solve the problems they have created. They are clearly incapable of addressing the problems they cause. One of these problems is online harassment and abuse of the rules. They have no capacity to clean the space of certain activities and if they try to do so, then they will censor any content that resembles something dangerous, even if it isn’t, to not risk being accused of supporting radical views.

We expect tech giants to be accountable and responsible for the problems they create, but that’s not very realistic, and it won’t just happen by itself. When it comes to digital-based repression and the use of surveillance and data collection to impose restrictions, there is a striking lack of accountability. Tech platforms depend on government authorisation to operate, so online platforms and tech companies are slow to react, if they do at all, in the face of accusations of surveillance, hate speech, online harassment and attacks, especially when powerful governments or other political forces are involved.

These companies are not going to do the right thing if they are not encouraged to do so. There are small steps as well as large steps one can take, starting with deciding how and when to use each of these tools, and whether to use them at all. At every step of the way, there are alternatives that you can use to do different things – for one, you can decentralise the way you interact with people and not use one platform for everything.

Of course, that’s not the whole problem, and the solution cannot be based on individual choices alone. A more structural solution would have to take place at the level of policy frameworks, as can be seen in Europe where regulations have been put in place and it is possible to see a framework shaping up for large companies to take more responsibility, and to define who they are benefiting from their access to personal information.

What advice can you offer for activists to use the internet more safely?

We have a set of tools and very basic steps to enable people who don’t want to leave these platforms, who depend on them, to understand what it is that they are doing, what kind of information they leave behind that can be used to identify them and how to avoid putting into the system more information than is strictly necessary. It is important to learn how to browse the internet privately and safely, how to choose the right settings on Google and Facebook and take back control of your data and your activity in these spaces.

People don’t usually understand how much about themselves is online and can be easily found via search engines, and the ways in which by exposing themselves they also expose the people who they work with and the activities they do. When using the internet we reveal where we are, what we are working on, what device we are using, what events we are participating in, what we are interested in, who we are connecting with, the phone providers we use, the visas we apply for, our travel itineraries, the kinds of financial transactions we do and with whom, and so on. To do all kinds of things we are increasingly dependent on more and more interlinked and centralised platforms that share information with one another and with other entities, and we aren’t even aware that they are doing it because they use trackers and cookies, among other things. We are giving away data about ourselves and what we do all the time, not only when we are online, but also when others enter information about us, for instance when travelling.

But there are ways to reduce our data trail, become more secure online and build a healthier relationship with technology. Some basic steps are to delete your activity as it is stored by search engines such as Google and switch to other browsers. You can delete unnecessary apps, switch to alternative apps for messaging, voice and video calls and maps – ideally to some that offer the same services you are used to, but that do not profit from your data – change passwords, declutter your accounts and renovate your social media profiles, separate your accounts to make it more difficult for tech giants to follow your activities, tighten your social media privacy settings, opt for private browsing (but still, be aware that this does not make you anonymous on the web), disable location services on mobile devices and do many other things that will keep you safer online.

Another issue that activists face online is misinformation and disinformation strategies. In that regard, there is a need for new tactics and standards to enable civil society groups, activists, bloggers and journalists to react by verifying information and creating evidence based on solid information. Online space can enable this if we promote investigation as a form of engagement. If we know how to protect ourselves, we can make full use of this space, in which there is still room for many positive things.

Get in touch with Tactical Tech through its website and Facebook page, or follow @Info_Activism on Twitter.

 

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